Rob Cooke starts the Yukon Quest with handler James Wilde steering the Quest Guest sled at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in Fairbanks, Alaska, on Feb. 1. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News0

What it takes to be a dog handler in the Yukon Quest

James Wilde has been a handler for Rob Cooke’s team in the last four Yukon Quests

While the dogs and mushers of the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race are rightly the centre of attention during the 1,600-kilometre journey between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse this year, there is another group of people who share a similar love for dogs and distaste for adequate sleep — dog handlers.

Each team in the race has one or more handler — someone responsible for helping with the preparations for the start; the layover in Dawson City; the 1,700-kilometre drive between Circle, Alaska, and Dawson; the work to be done at the finish and, most importantly, caring for dropped dogs while the race continues.

James Wilde is one such handler and has been handling for Mount Lorne’s Rob Cooke in the last four Yukon Quests. He first got wind of the Quest after adopting two Alaskan Malamutes — Nala and Storm — at home in the UK, where he serves in the British Army.

“I sort of followed the Quest online one year and decided I was going to come out and watch the start and it was in Fairbanks,” said Wilde during a quiet moment at the Mile 101 checkpoint. “I stayed with a women and she knew Rob and she’d invited him up to the lodge where we stayed.”

That was in 2016. Wilde said they got on well, bonding over their shared background — Cooke served in the Royal Navy — and quickly seemed to have a connection.

The next year, Wilde was on a plane and handling for Cooke at the 2017 Kuskokwim and Yukon Quest.

Cooke said Wilde approached him about handling while Wilde recalls Cooke inviting him to do the job. Either way, Wilde was in Whitehorse and preparing to drive to Anchorage, Alaska, and fly to Bethel, Alaska, for the start.

“It was really weird,” said Wilde. “Obviously I’d only really met Rob a couple of times. … I was probably nervous and excited at the same time.”

The Kusko, it turns out, is a difficult race for mushers and handlers and Cooke was impressed.

“He turned up and pretty much got on the flight to Bethel and he was fantastic,” said Cooke. “I could see straight away that we were completely in tune.”

The two share the same priority during races — the dogs — which makes for a good match.

“My priority is the dogs,” said Wilde. “So that’s the dogs first — even before Rob and even before myself.”

That love of dogs is what Cooke pegged as the most important thing for a handler.

“The most important thing is to get on with the dogs and have the dogs like that person,” said Cooke. “They’ve got to like the dogs and the dogs have got to like them.”

The relationships between musher, handler and dog are of course different for every team. Some mushers have family act as handlers — spouses, siblings or even children often fill the role — while some mushers, like Cooke, find people that fit a specific set of criteria.

For Cooke, having a handler that meshes well with himself and the team is the most important. Cooke’s brother was supposed to be joining Wilde this year as well as another past handler, but circumstances forced Wilde to work solo.

“I think James would rather have a few more (handlers), but it’s having the right people,” said Cooke. “It looked like it was just going to be James and I think he was more concerned than I was. I was quite happy to have just him along.”

It all comes down to how familiar Wilde and the dogs are with each other.

“James knows all the dogs really well and each dog knows him — that really makes a big difference,” said Cooke. “I can drop a dog and I can completely relax (knowing) that dog is going to be 100 per cent looked after, 100 per cent fine and 100 per cent happy. I couldn’t come to a race with a handler I didn’t know and didn’t know the dogs.”

Doing that, Cooke said, puts undue pressure on the musher, the dogs and the handler.

For his part, Wilde agreed that an existing relationship with the dogs is key.

“Getting comfortable with them was really easy because they’re all super friendly and super cute as well,” said Wilde. “What I found tough was getting to know who everybody was.

Cooke’s kennel, Shaytaan Siberians, is full of dozens of Siberian Huskies — many of whom are white and quite similar in appearance to the untrained eye.

Wilde recounted a time when they were getting a team ready to run and Cooke asked for a specific dog.

“I said, ‘which one is this?’ and he goes, ‘the white one,’” said Wilde. “I turned around and said, ‘mate, there are six white ones over here; which one do you mean?’”

The dog yard at the kennel is rearranged each year, something Wilde said also serves to keep him on his toes.

The trick is simply to build those relationships. Wilde said particularly in the early years, he’d spend his days getting to know the dogs while Rob and his wife were working.

“I’d just spend a lot of time just walking around, sitting wtih the dogs, getting to know them,” said Wilde. “Trying to learn all their different personalities.”

Beyond the dogs, the role of a handler is a hybrid of administration and logistics.

Handlers are there before the mushers arrive at checkpoints, ready to help park the team and direct the musher to whatever they may need — methanol, water, sleep facilities, food or anything else.

In Dawson, teams are left under the watchful eye of handlers as mushers rest. The Dawson checkpoint is the only time mushers may be assisted with feeding dogs and repairing equipment, per Rule 20 of the Yukon Quest rules.

Wilde and Cooke put a value on quiet — both are quite soft-spoken in a one-on-one setting — and Cooke said sometimes the pair work with such little verbal communication it startles observers.

“People say it can be disconcerting,” said Cooke. “That they’ve watched us and I can look at James and he knows exactly what I want and he goes off and he does it. There is this nonverbal communication with us that maybe does go back to the military as well.”

Wilde has an even simpler explanation, one that doesn’t make him a Radar O’Reilly type of psychic — he pays attention.

“The fact that both having that sort of military background is really helpful because we sort of know how that works and we sort of just get on with things,” said Wilde. “In terms of knowing what the other person is thinking, I like to watch everything he’s doing and learn. So after I’ve watched him do something a couple of times, I know the next time what he’s going to want doing, so I can preempt that. It’s about just using a bit of initiative and just taking note and sort of paying attention to detail.”

Like many handlers, Wilde would like to race dogs — something he said he’s spoken to Cooke about.

“Maybe if I can move one day and get a lot more time off, then we’ll be able to do something,” said Wilde. “Maybe if I ever leave the army we can set something up.”

Although Cooke is just one of 15 mushers to start this year’s Quest and Wilde is just one handler, the relationship between Wilde, Cooke and the dogs is a window into a behind-the-scenes part of the race that you can’t follow on a live tracker.

Contact John Hopkins-Hill at john.hopkinshill@yukon-news.com

Yukon Quest

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